The Sentry Scandal & Unethical Sales Practices

For the past week I’ve been tinkering with a piece around the allegations that TD’s high pressure sales tactics had driven some staff to disregard the needs of their clients and encourage financial advisers in their employ to push for unsuitable products, and in some instances drove employees to break the law.

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The drop in the value of TD shares following the allegations reported by CBC (from Google Finance)

My general point was that the financial advising industry depends on trust to function, and runs into problems when those that we employ for those jobs serve more than one master. The sales goals of the big banks are only in line with the individual investor needs so long as investor needs serve the banks. In other words, clients of the banks frequently find that their interests run second to the profit and management goals of Canada’s big five.

Yet I was having a hard time getting the article together. Something about the message was too easy; too obvious. No one who read the reports from the CBC was in any doubt about the ethical dubiousness of TD’s position, and forgetting the accusations of illegality, I doubt most people were surprised to find out that banks put their corporate needs ahead of their average Canadian clients.

But then yesterday something truly shocking happened. One of Canada’s larger independent mutual fund companies had to pay a $1.5 million settlement to the OSC for “non-compliant sales practices” (you can read the actual ruling by the OSC HERE). Effectively the OSC was reprimanding a company for giving excessively large non-monetary gifts to financial advisers, rewarding them for being “top producers”.

For the uninitiated, Canada’s mutual fund industry can seem a little confusing, so let me see if I can both explain why a mutual fund company would do what it did, and how you can avoid it.

First, there are several different kinds of mutual fund companies:

  1. There are companies like those of the banks, that provide both the service of financial advice and the mutual funds to invest in. This includes the five big banks and advice received within a branch.
  2. There are also independent mutual fund companies that also own a separate investing arm that operate independently. Companies like CI Investments own the financial firm Assante, IA Clarington owns FundEx, and the banks all have an independent brokerage (for example TD has Waterhouse, RBC owns Dominion Securities and BMO owns Nesbitt Burns).
  3. Lastly, there are a series of completely independent mutual fund companies with no investment wing. Companies like Franklin Templeton, Fidelity Investments, AGF Investments and Sentry Investments all fall into that category.

The real landscape is more complicated than this. There are lots of companies, and many are owned by yet other companies, so it can get muddy quickly. But for practical purposes, this is a fair picture for the Canadian market.

In theory, any independent financial adviser (either with a bank-owned brokerage, or an independent brokerage, like Aligned Capital) can buy any and all of these investments for our clients. And so, the pressure is on for mutual fund companies to get financial advisers to pay attention to them. If you are CI Investments, in addition to trying to win over other advisers, you also have your own financial adviser team that you can develop. But if you are a company like Sentry, you have no guarantee that anyone will pay attention to you. So how do you get business?

Sentry is a relatively new company. Firms like Fidelity and Franklin Templeton have been around for more than half a century. Banks have deep reserves to tap into if they want to create (out of nothing) a new mutual fund company. By comparison, Sentry has been around for just 20 years, and has had to survive through two serious financial downturns, first in 2000 and then 2008, as an independent firm. By all accounts, they’ve actually been quite successful, especially post 2009. You may have even seen some of their advertisements around.

 

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Over the past few years independent mutual fund companies have increasingly turned to public advertising to try and encourage individual investors to bug their advisers about their funds.

 

But while Sentry has had some fairly good performance in some important sectors (from a business standpoint, it is more important to have a strong core of conservative equity products than high flying emerging market or commodity investments) it has also had some practices that have made me uncomfortable.

For a long time, Sentry Investments paid financial advisers more than most other mutual fund companies. For every dollar paid to an adviser normally, Sentry would pay an additional $0.25. That may not sound like much, but across enough assets thats a noticeable chunk of money. And while there is nothing illegal about this, it is precisely the kind of activity that makes regulators suspicious about the motives of financial advisers and the relationships they have with investment providers. Its no surprise that about a year ago Sentry scaled back their trailer to advisers to be more like the rest of the industry.

The fact is, though, that Sentry is in trouble because of their success. No matter how much Sentry was willing to pay advisers, no-one has a business without solid performance, and Sentry had that. The company grew quickly following 2008 and has been one of the few Canadian mutual fund companies that attracted new assets consistently following the financial meltdown. When times are good, it’s easy for companies to look past their own bottom line and share their wealth. That Sentry chose to have a Due Diligence conference in Beverly Hills and shower gifts on their attending advisers was a reflection of their success more than anything else.

And yet, from an ethical standpoint, it is deeply troubling. I have always been wary of companies that offer to pay more than the going market rate for fear that the motives of my decision could be questioned or maligned. Being seen to be ethical is frequently about not simply following the law, but doing everything in your power to avoid conflicts of interest (Donald Trump: take notice). The financial advisers attending the due diligence (who would have paid for their own air travel and hotel accommodation) probably had no reason to believe that the gifts they were receiving exceeded the annual contribution limit. But now those gifts cast them too in the shadow of dubious behaviour.

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This is a man who has a hard time creating the impression that he is above ethical conflicts.

So how can you protect yourself from worries that your adviser is acting unethically, or being swayed to make decisions not in your interest? First, insist that your adviser at least offers the option of a fee for service arrangement. While the difference between an embedded trail and a transparent fee may be nominal, a fee-for-service agreement means that you have complete transparency in costs and full disclosure about where your advisers interests lie.

Second, if an embedded trail is still the best option, ask your adviser what the rationale was behind the selection of each of the funds in your portfolio, and what the trail commission was for each of those investments. This is information that you are entitled to, and you shouldn’t be shy about asking for.

Lastly, ask what mutual funds have given your adviser, but be open to the answer. Gifts to advisers are meant to fall into the category of “trinkets and trash”, mostly disposable items that are visibly branded by the company providing them, though gifts can be moderately more expensive. The difference between receiving cufflinks from Tiffany’s and cufflinks that bare the logo of a mutual fund firm is the difference between ethically dubious and openly transparent.

Regulators in Canada are pushing the industry towards a Fiduciary Responsibility for financial advisers. While that may clarify some of the grey areas, it will certainly create its own series of problems. Until then though, investors should not hesitate to question the investments they have, and why they have them. It may be unfair to expect the average Canadian to remember all the details about the types of investments that they have, but you should absolutely expect your financial adviser to be able to transparently and comprehensively explain the rationale and selection method behind the investments that you own.

If you would like an independent review of your current portfolio, please don’t hesitate to give us a call. 416-960-5995.

 

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